How Serious Is The Threat Of Biological Warfare

Despite A Ban On Biological Weapons, Research and Experiments Have Continued At High Levels

Bharat Dogra

A highly disturbing aspect of COVID-19 has been that allegations of this being related to accidental or intentional biological weapon research and use have been made by two of the most powerful countries the USA and China against each other. The suggestion from the USA side was that there was an accidental leak from a suspected bio-weapon lab in China while the counter-allegation from China was that US military officials visiting Wuhan were responsible for releasing the virus here. The mutual allegations were not made officially but still a lot of animosity was generated at one time between the two countries due to these allegations.

The mainstream discussion on COVID-19 has rightly made only a passing reference to these allegations, generally saying that the overall scientific opinion is against them.Also the focus just now should be on protecting people and for this cooperation of all countries is needed. Various countries, and certainly the biggest powers, should not get embroiled in such serious allegations at a time when the world cannot afford any conflict.

Nevertheless, it is very important to know the factual situation about biological weapons as, even though these weapons are banned internationally, high levels of threat relating to these weapons still continues to be a cause for serious concern.

Biological weapons are those biological toxins or infectious agents such as bacteria, virus, insect and fungi which are used, with the intent of killing or inflicting other damage on human beings, animals and plants, as a hostile act or an act of war. These are banned in most of the countries by international agreements but research work relating to protection from these weapons is allowed. In the guise of such research or in other ways, work on biological weapons continues in several countries; most certainly in the three most powerful countries namely the USA, Russia and China.Therefore possibility of actual use and accidental release remains.

Biological weapons are capable of causing millions of deaths. Hence biological weapons continue to be included in the category of weapons of mass destruction or WMDs. As biological weapons are much easier and cheaper to use compared to nuclear weapons, there is higher risk of these being used by non-state actors or terrorists to cause very large-scale destruction. Another reason why such weapons may be preferred in certain war situations is that these can kill a lot of people without harming the infra-structure (buildings, roads, airports etc.) at all.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “ The insidious effects of many chemical and biological warfare agents make them suited to sabotage, for not only do they cause widespread damage, but their delayed effects may also enable the saboteur to escape detection.”

There are several other reasons why these weapons may be increasingly favored by nations as well as well as non-state combatants. US expert Kathleen C. Bailey has summed up the reasons, “Tremendous technology advances such as genetic engineering and development of stabilizers have made these weapons relatively easy to manufacture and deliver effectively. Because these weapons are inexpensive and comparatively easy to produce, an increasing number of nations may pursue them.”

A special aspect of these weapons is that these can easily cause loss which is much higher than what was intended, to the extent that even the attacking nation may be seriously affected by the risk. As Bailey adds, “a bacteria or virus used as a weapon could spread well beyond its intended victims, causing an epidemic worldwide. The pathogen could mutate, becoming even more deadly and resistant to treatment or prevention.”

Genetic engineering has been used increasingly to spread GM or genetically modified crops by very powerful multinational companies. This by itself has involved very serious risks and hazards, as pointed out by several senior scientists, but in addition a less-discussed but very important aspect is that in the process bio-weapon technology and capability are also pushed ahead in the garb of civilian research. Eminent scientists from several countries grouped together as the Independent Science Panel have stated, “ By far the most insidious dangers of genetic engineering are inherent to the process itself, which greatly enhances the scope and probability of horizontal gene transfer and recombination, the main route to creating viruses and bacteria that cause disease epidemics…Newer techniques, such as DNA shuffling, are allowing geneticists to create in a matter of minutes in the laboratory millions of recombinant viruses that have never existed in billions of years of evolution. Disease causing viruses and bacteria and their genetic material are the predominant materials and tools for genetic engineering, as much as for the intentional creation of bio-weapons.”

Due to such close linkages of certain types of civilian research with bio-weapons research it is not surprising that several civilian research projects have drawn criticism for their biological warfare implications. Several such projects were indicted in the 167th Report (1975) of the Public Accounts Committee of the Indian Parliament titled Foreign Participation or Collaboration in Research Projects in India and in its follow-up report in 1976. This report indicted several projects but came down more heavily on the genetic control of mosquitos unit (GCMU) project. So, it is a matter of grave concern that projects using similar technology of genetically modified mosquitos are still being promoted in India by multinational companies in India and other developing countries. Earlier projects by the US army to test specially bred mosquitos as bio-weapon agents had become very controversial in the USA.

The Week magazine published two cover stories (October 9 1994 and July 23 1995) alleging that the outbreak of pneumonic plague in Surat was caused by bio-warfare experiments conducted by the USA. The PTI reported around the same time, “there is increasing suspicion among scientists that the strain of Yersinia pestis, which caused the outbreak, was genetically engineered. Basis for this suspicion is a test report from the US Centre for Disease Control at Fort Collins in Colorado that the Surat strain is unique and not related to any known strain of the plague bacillus.”

Cuba has protested several times against the alleged use against it of bio-weapons by the USA, resulting in outbreak of diseases and crop loss.

It is clear that intentional use of bio-weapons, experiments related to this and accidents relating to bio-weapon production and research remain a big possibility which can prove extremely costly for all forms of life on our planet. Hence efforts to check any such possibility should receive much more attention than these have received so far.

The writer is Convener of Save the Earth Now Campaign and its SED Demand.

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Jun 9, 2020

Bharat Dogra

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